We were promised flying cars, teleportation and hover boards. We don’t have any of that. But now we have this: The BMW i8 and it’s a future that cannot get here soon enough.
My body hurt. My mind was numb. I had just spent a week in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show and was ready to fly home. But first I had to drive a brand-new 2015 BMW i8 to L.A. It’s a rough job, but someone has to do it.
The i8 is BMW’s latest supercar, able to go 0 to 60 in about 4.4 seconds with its hybrid electric/gas powertrain. The i8 looks like a Hot Wheels car, handles like a supercar and is as expensive as a high-end Porsche. With a starting price of $135,000, this isn’t the car for everyone. It’s actually a gateway into BMW’s other hybrid, the cute and cheap BMW i3, a shorter, sporty runaround that BMW is touting as their answer to crunchy hybrids from Honda, Nissan, and Chevy.
I set out, gassed up and fully charged. My time with the i8 was short. I had already spent several days cruising around Vegas where the i8 got more attention than the volcano in front of the Mirage. The car stopped traffic. People gawked from sidewalks and leaned out of cabs to snap pictures.
Stopping at a gas station was an exercise in patience. Everyone had to take a picture and tell me a story about a car they once loved but totaled. It got the most attention parked at a hotel across from CES where most thought it was part of BMW’s trade-show exhibit.
Nope, she was all mine for the next couple of days.
I had already spent several days cruising around Vegas where the i8 got more attention than the volcano in front of the Mirage.
Since the i8 lacks a proper trunk, I jammed my luggage in the back seat and took off to LA down I-15. The sun was shining and the traffic was light. I didn’t plan on taking the quick route all the way to my airport hotel some hundred miles away. Nope, I had all day to get there and was going to make the most of my time with the i8. I turned off the expressway at the first sign of the Mojave National Preserve and found what I was looking for: empty desert roads. I smiled and I assume the i8 did as well.
It’s astounding BMW made the i8 at all. It’s a concept car turned production car. BMW released the stunning concept in 2009 at the height of the recession. Now, some five years later, I’m sitting on the side of an empty road with the i8’s scissor doors open and admiring the desolate beauty outside Las Vegas. All I can hear is a slight whine from the hybrid electric powerplant ready to be abused.
Nestled somewhere within the i8’s frame is an electric motor and tiny 3 cylinder, 1.5L turbocharged engine. They work in tandem to power the i8. The results will make treehuggers and gearheads equally happy.
When driven in hybrid mode, the i8 is quick and plentiful. It can go about 15 miles on effectively just electric power. When the gear shift lever is kicked over to sport mode, the i8 becomes exhilarating.
I turned off the expressway at the first sign of the Mojave National Preserve and found what I was looking for: empty desert roads.
In either mode it’s quick off the line and at speed. Stomp the right pedal to the floor and the i8 flies to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds. Even more impressive, though, is when passing is required. As I understand it, the powertrain uses the electric motor to give the moving car an instant boost and then seconds later the 3 cylinder engine takes over. The car leaps forward with supercar might and plants occupants into the seats.
The car simply thunders when driven in sport mode and hugs the roads like a modern supercar should. BMW piped some of the engine noise back into the cabin through the audio system. Sure, that might be cheating a bit, but the notes are genuine and raw. I found the sound to be the most surprising thing about the i8. I simply wasn’t expecting the hybrid to sound so mean.
My scenic route to LA took me through the Mojave Desert. Pot holes and tortuous crossing signs littered the route. Around the tiny outpost of Kelso Depot, the road emulated a rollercoaster with miles of dips and curves (and still more potholes). The i8 took the obstacles like a champ, throwing gravel and begging for more. The car never exhibited anything other than supreme confidence.
This is where i8’s carbon fiber “Life Module” seemed most needed. The car took everything the extreme roads could muster. The cabin was as solid as the granite peaks I was speeding past. When bobbing through the dips, the car stayed planted to the road without any sign of lifting off.
The i8 employs extensive use of carbon fiber throughout. The car only weighs 3,274. That’s 200 lbs less than a Porsche 911 Turbo or 2015 Corvette . This is probably one of the main reasons why the car starts at $135,000.
This lightweight material contributes significantly to the car’s performance. The center of gravity is much lower to the ground — something that’s clearly evident after just a few minutes of driving.
I emerged from the desert ready for some water. I settled for a Coke and a burger in Twentynine Palms, Calif. Even here, on the edge of nothingness, the car drew a crowd. Boys from the local car wash ran across the street to see it. The burger joint owner’s son talked my ear off about his Chevy Nova and how he escaped military conscription in Greece.
The i8 took the obstacles like a champ, throwing gravel and begging for more. The car never exhibited anything other than supreme confidence.
Don’t tell BMW but I jumped the curb when leaving the burger place. Thankfully, my confidence was the only thing damaged. You see, the i8 is wide. The center console is at least a foot in diameter and the car hugs the lanes. The i8 is 14 inches wider than a 2015 Chevy Corvette and just two inches shy of the width of a Ford Explorer. I just didn’t think I was going to hit that curb.
The road took me down the edge of Joshua Tree National Forest and eventually turned back into a highway. After a couple of hours of driving in sport mode, the car’s battery was mostly recharged and ready to coax the most miles per gallon.
When I hit the outskirts of L.A., the claims of the Californian drought became questionable. It was raining hard and I hit the area at rush hour. My hotel was deep in the city and hours away.
Here the i8 turned into just another commuter car. It was gentle and forgiving. I’ve never driven a supercar as relaxing in traffic. The car’s powertrain, which had just hours before gave me unforgettable memories, cruised through stop-and-go traffic as easy as a Camry. Even the drenched roads didn’t cause the i8 to blink.
It’s hard to forget that the i8 is a hybrid, yet it’s easy to live with. There are several gauges on the dash that state loud and clear there’s a battery somewhere within the car.
Driving in Sport mode rapidly recharges the battery. Even in standard driving mode, the car seamlessly recharges the battery when possible.
The battery was fully charged before setting off on my adventure and I reset the internal MPG counter. I powered through desert roads and cruised down the California highway and averaged 37 mpg. That’s amazing in ways that’s hard to express. I drove the i8 hard (but never past the posted speed limits) and then was stuck in L.A. traffic. I conquered mountain roads and hours of wet pavement. The i8 is the future of automobiles we deserve.
The merits of pure electric vehicles are undeniable, but the world will not be ready to fully convert to Tesla’s vision for generations. BMW is on to something with the i8.
The i8 impresses, but it’s a hard sell. The model I drove is $150,000 and is filled with quirks. I can’t decide if items like squeaky windshield wipers or an odd instrument cluster are supercar sacrifices or something to do with a first-generation vehicle. There isn’t even Sirus Radio in the i8. The interior is filled with standard BMW parts and the lack of proper storage is laughable.
For my money, a Porsche 911 Turbo or fully equipped Audi R8 are better buys that will provide as many thrills as the i8. And if you can afford any of these cars, the cost of gasoline likely isn’t an issue anyway. Neither of these cars are as comfortable in heavy traffic as the i8, though.
The i8 is the car of tomorrow. Little issues with the creature comforts isn’t a problem to BMW. The car company is more interested in working the kinks out of the advanced powertrain and developing an affordable carbon fiber manufacturing process. Getting a quirky i8 to market is more valuable to BMW than spending years turning the i8 into the perfect car.
Getting a quirky i8 to market is more valuable to BMW than spending years turning the i8 into the perfect car.
Releasing a flawed product is standard operating procedure for car companies. Look at the Chevy Volt. GM rushed that product to market. The engineers needed the data that can only come from releasing a product in the wild. The first Volt was expensive, buggy and not the best value on the market — just like the i8 is right now.
There are sports cars that are faster and more capable than the i8. There are sports cars that get better fuel economy, too. The i8 doesn’t even have a trunk large enough for golf clubs and the back seats exist only for insurance purposes — they’re the smallest I’ve ever seen. The inside is a standard BMW affair with similar trim, switches and infotainment systems as the car maker’s other models.
I enjoyed my time with the i8. It’s a fantastic car and foreshadows a future where electric motors and gas engines work together to provide countless thrills. The i8’s engine whirls like a sci-fi spaceship. First a slight electric whine and then an explosive roar. It’s intoxicating and thrilling.
BMW and other car manufacturers are constantly striving to produce the ideal automobile. With each model, they inch closer to the perfect car. With the developments behind the i8, BMW gained not inches, but feet.
The electric revolution should not be feared but embraced. If the i8 is any indication, the future will be thrilling.